As important as pitching is to a high school baseball team at any time of the season, it is perhaps most crucial come playoff time.
While many teams have an ace they can call on for at least one game, the teams that usually have the best chance to advance far are the ones well-stocked to withstand the rigors of three possible games over two days.
With that in mind, Mill Creek coach Doug Jones has perhaps as much to smile about as any coach in Gwinnett County as his team prepares for its first-round series against Kennesaw Mountain, which begins Friday.
The Hawks (18-8, Region 7-AAAAA champions and ranked No. 10 in Class AAAAA) have 10 pitchers on their roster heading into the postseason, all of which have been tested by throwing significant innings during the regular season.
That gives Jones plenty of options no matter how long a series lasts or how high-scoring a game becomes.
"Not that we want it to come to that, but we can go 10 deep and feel comfortable," Jones said. "But the very important thing about our staff is they all know their roles."
True, several of the Hawks hurlers have settled into defined roles, especially the starting rotation of Brandon Bast (6-1, 1.19 ERA, 38 K, 47 IP), Matthew Grimes (3-2, 2.01, 47 K, 451/3 IP) and Cody Clickner (3-2, 2.05, 28 K, 302/3 IP).
However, it is the ability to play a number of different roles that makes Mill Creek's pitchers so valuable.
For example, Brian Holmes (4-1, 2 saves, 1.25, 37 K, 221/3) has worked as a long reliever and shared some of the closing duties with Tyler Akens (1-2, 2 saves, 1.75, 13 K, 12 IP), and is capable of making a spot start, if necessary.
And the Hawks' entire rotation has had to make major adjustments over the course of the season, perhaps no one more than Bast.
The senior right-hander not only changed roles after serving as Mill Creek's closer a year ago, but also had to deal with rehab after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder last June.
And Bast was slated to head back to the bullpen, but when a spot opened up in the rotation, he convinced Jones he was capable of filling it and has become the Hawks' stopper.
"(Doctors) told me I'd be able to compete by six months after the surgery, and I'd be all the way back in about a year," said Bast, who will pitch for Georgia Perimeter College next year. "And it's been just recently, actually, that I've gotten to feel close to normal, especially with the weather getting warmer.
"I hadn't started in a while, and I was still rehabbing my shoulder at the beginning of the season. So, it was tough, and I didn't know what to expect. But I'm pleased with the numbers, and I've gotten a lot of support from my defense."
The Hawks have played solidly in the field to help out their pitchers, and the one who has probably benefited the most is Grimes.
Jones expected the sophomore might play a role on this year's team, though not such a big role or so soon.
Yet Grimes has settled into the rotation, and it was a performance in a 3-1 victory in a key region game at North Gwinnett, in which he threw a complete game and got solid help in the field behind him, that both he and Jones know that he had arrived.
"That game, I realized I had a good defense behind me, and I could get a lot of ground ball outs," Grimes said. "It was just one of those games when everything fell into place."
The emergence of Grimes, the transition of Bast to the rotation, the return of Clickner and the versatility of relievers like Holmes and Akens have given Jones plenty of options in any situation.
It is reminiscent of the Kennesaw Mountain team - one with a deep pitching staff that included current Division I pitchers Will Casey (South Carolina) and Josh Means (East Tennessee State) - that ousted Mill Creek from the second round of the playoffs last season.
It's also the same Mustangs (17-7, ranked No. 9) team that visits Hoschton to challenge the Hawks again Friday.
While Jones appreciates having the same large number of options KMHS coach George Hansen had late in close games last year, he knows those options must be used wisely.
"That's where (pitching coach) Bill Petty comes in," Jones said. "He's very good at that. We don't always agree 100 percent of the time, but we're on the same page.
"I kind of like having that many choices. You can give (an opponent) two or three different looks instead of giving them the same look four or five times. Good teams will be all over that.
"I didn't really think about the comparison (to KMHS) last year. But then again, at that point, I didn't know I'd have that many arms."
SideBar: State baseball
First round of playoffs
· 4 p.m. - Alpharetta at Brookwood
· 4 p.m. - Kennesaw Mountain at Mill Creek
· 4 p.m. - Walton at Parkview
· 5 p.m. - Grayson at Lassiter
· 5 p.m. - Woodstock at Norcross
· 5 p.m. - North Gwinnett at North Cobb
· 5 p.m. - South Gwinnett at Kell
· 4 p.m. - Washington-Wilkes at Wesleyan
· 4:30 p.m. - GAC at North Oconee
· 2 p.m. - Monticello at Providence